As I mentioned in my last post I’m thinking about moving, and I outlined some of things I’d be ideally looking for in a church community. In this post I thought I’d take it up a level and talk about Christian institutions in the UK wholesale, or rather the lack of them.
For the last year or so I’ve been subscribed to a Newsletter by an American called Aaron Ren, it’s mainly about Men and Christianity but it’s asks a lot of questions about culture which, I atleast, tend to think are pretty insightful. More recently Ren has been talking about the Christian institutions in America and, in a recent issue, on the tendency of conservatives to leave when the institutions get influenced or taken over by more progressive forces:
So by leaving you give up on something established and are forced to start over from scratch. Not only is starting over difficult in general, in some domains it is impossible to replicate the institution you just left. It’s highly unlikely anyone will ever create a new high status university from nothing today, for example.
Secondly, the world is dynamic, not static, and the problems that you think you are escaping by Exiting have a tendency to follow you to the next place. The city goes downhill, so people move to the suburbs. A generation later people are moving to a newer suburb on the edge because the older suburbs started declining.
Not only do problems have a way of chasing after us, choosing Exit means we seldom reflect on our own role in creating those problems. Sometimes the problems seem to follow us because the problem is us, or at least is partially related to us.Aaron Ren, The Masculinist #42: Why You Should Be on the Advance, Not the Retreat
For me this cut quite close to the bone given my recent attitudes towards the Church of England. Americans might not be able to appreciate how large the Church of England still looms in English Christianity and it is still, for better or worse, what most people conceive of when they think of Christianity in England, if they think about it at all. You can’t leave the Church of England and walk into the next equivalent, even Roman Catholicism doesn’t have the centrality with regard to national institutions. Nothing comes close to it in prominence within the UK and what starts in the Church of England, whether it was debates around Christians and contraception (1930s), egalitarianism (1980s), or same sex marriage and transgenderism (2010s-), certainly doesn’t end there but will bleed into other churches over time.
Yet that doesn’t mean we should never draw a line under anything. Still, he warns, as Christians you can’t keep retreating or denying forever. Ren continues:
There’s definitely a place for Exit or retreat. In many contexts, the stakes are low and there’s no moral dimension to departure. If your employer is failing or the culture is becoming toxic there, there’s no shame in taking a better job elsewhere. You have no ethical duty to stay and fight to save the place.
In other contexts, by the time you realize there’s a serious problem in your city, church, or other organization, it’s often too advanced for you to effectively combat it. And let’s not pretend that fights are always symmetrical or fair. Some people and movements have massive societal support behind them, others don’t. Withdrawing and regrouping is sometimes the best option in these cases.Ibid
The second paragraph there, to be honest, reflects my own view of the Church of England. The issues and debates, in my experience, are nearly never symmetrical or even handed. Yet it doesn’t really address the fact that the question of ‘where’ does one regroup has no easy answer. Particularly because the Church of England largely still has a monopoly on significant Christian institutions whether that be schools, university presence, or other similar social organs. Ren is speaking in an American context, but I’d actually argue that the plurality of the Christian ecosystem over there is a considerable advantage to what we see in Europe. If you do decide to withdraw and regroup out of a national church the only alternatives are often on an incredibly small scale and operating in what Ren has previously called the negative world:
1. Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
2. Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
3. Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.Aaron Ren, The Masculinist #13: The Lost World of American Evangelicalism
The dating on this doesn’t align in a UK context but the descriptions I think bear out. Out of this model Ren outlines I can’t help but feel I was brought up in and became a Christian in what I’d call the ‘negative world’. The UK statistically is one of the most irreligious places in the world and does seem very different to America in this sense. I’ve certainly never found Christianity to be an advantage in polite society, even when attending a Church of England comprehensive school as a child. Yet what Ren is talking about is a broader sense of disenfranchisement:
One of the biggest problems faced by Christians in America (and also by political conservatives) is that they exist almost entirely inside space that owned by others – legally owned in many cases, but more importantly socially and culturally owned.Aaron Ren, The Masculinist #43: The Importance of Owned Space
Whilst many English churches are fortunate to own their own real estate, an increasing number of their attendees do not (particularly the young and in big cities). Ren’s comments about social and cultural space are also very much true in the UK. Particularly for those outside the Church of England who, despite it’s shortcomings, still plays a disproportionate role in Evangelical academia and leadership training. Alastair Roberts writes in defence of the church:
The strength of evangelicalism as an academic and ecclesial force within the UK is overwhelmingly due to Anglicans and Anglican institutions (evangelical Anglican training colleges also deserve a mention here). This strength is one that thankfully benefits all evangelicals to some degree or other, whether they are within or without the Church of England. Many North Americans also benefit from the institutional struggles that evangelicals fought here.Alastair Roberts, One Reason Why John Stott’s Stand Against Martyn Lloyd-Jones Mattered
Yet the position here outlined by Alastair Roberts does have one glaring omission. Whilst many global Christian leaders benefit from Anglican institutions in Britain this doesn’t always translate to the people, the laity. If it does at all it is arguably in the form of secondary or tertiary benefits. The primary absence felt is in the lack of primary social and cultural goods generated by owned institution that are felt in the daily lives of Protestant laity. The benefits of an institution are more than academic, as Ren will come to point out.
I’d argue the Church of England for Evangelicals, or even Protestants, in marketing speech is a ‘borrowed’ channel. Evangelicals don’t own it but like a library they can make use of it. In marketing you’d want to build an audience on a borrowed channel before taking it to your own ‘owned’ channel. That owned channel does not exist. Leaving your audience on a borrowed channel makes it vulnerable to changes in how the channel operates. Ren is all too aware of this and has written on it previously:
Given that the values of our society are far out of line from Christianity, and that American Christianity itself is in a declining, catabolic phase, you just have to assume any institutional value you create, even in a religious institution, will be redirected to ends of which you don’t approve – and maybe of which you actively disapprove. This is true even of institutions you start and control, because one day you’ll be gone and someone else will be charge.Aaron Ren, The Masculinist #35: Rebalancing Away from Institutions
Practically this means that when I give money to the common fund in the Church of England, like I do currently, that money will go towards training and teaching in traditions within the Church that I would not otherwise support or give my endorsement too. The time, talent, and treasures offered by congregants instead of going towards causes they believe in will go to where the institution instead deems best.
Even if you do continue to invest in the institution and push back on the perceived negative influences this is largely a losing play if your tradition doesn’t come to own, or capture, the body in question. As one secular commentator writes:
If you build a business on someone else’s platform, in the end you’re either doing R&D for features they’ll add or you’re setting yourself up to cede them your margins.Byrne Hobart, The Paycheck Protection Plan: Where Did The Money Go?
Which, given I’m thinking about moving, translates to ensuring you either: buy the house or build the house because if your renting the house the landlord is the only long-term beneficiary. Which is why Ren starts talking about the importance of owned physical, social, and cultural space for Christians:
What would a Christian community with actual owned space look like?
One of the best Christian case studies of owned space in America is Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Put aside for a minute any distaste you have for Doug Wilson, his oddball theologies, his trollish blog posts, how he runs his church, etc.
Think instead about Christ Church and Moscow as a Harvard Business School case study whose lessons could be applicable to Episcopalians or even non-Christians.
The Moscow owned space stack thus looks something like this:
Have the community confidence to be culturally and even visually distinct from the surrounding community
Build a critical mass of people relative to the overall community size
Develop a method of a) attracting the likeminded while b) filtering out the differently minded
Create scalable businesses that a) generate wealth b) employ community members and c) otherwise contribute to the community through taxes, etc.
Create top quality consumer oriented businesses (which also benefit the whole community)
Acquire strategic commercial and residential real estate in the historic town or neighborhood center.
It’s notable that until recently, the Christ Church community has not really attempted, to the best of my knowledge, to assert direct political power in the community by electing its own or friendly politicians. Though potentially this is something to add to the stack.Aaron Ren, The Masculinist #43: The Importance of Owned Space
Whatever you think of the media produced by Wilson et al the focus of the goods Ren is drawing attention to here is predominantly community orientated. The people, the laity, are included in the primary, secondary, and even tertiary benefits of the community. Compare this to Alastair Robert’s argument for Anglican institutions and I would argue that Ren here is taking a more holistic, bottom-up, view of the Church and how institutions should serve it. Roberts position, whilst legitimate, can’t help but come across by comparison as top-down.
Ren goes on to point out that in America there are Roman Catholic Communities doing similar things and another obvious example would be all Anabaptist communities from the outset, the Bruderhof of Darvell in Kent being a good example. All of these communities are capable, and do produce what can be called ‘thick’ culture:
CULTURE or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.Tylor Edward B. (1871), Primitive Culture, Chapter 1: The Science of Culture.
A thick culture is a free-standing engine of society that is self-sustaining. This is in comparison to what is sometimes called a ‘thin’ culture, something that: “does not exist independently of thick culture. Rather, thin culture is defined in contradistinction to thick culture.” (On Culture, Thick and Thin: Toward a Neo-Cultural Synthesis William Mishler and Detlef Pollack)
I would argue that most Christian culture in the UK is now ‘thin’ and that historic non-conformist Christianity in the UK has always been ‘thin’:
- Predicated on a rejection of the Church of England.
- The historic impact of non-conformists being frozen out of, and unable to found, competing institutions in British society since the Reformation.
The Church of England is ‘thicker’ but I would not say it is actually ‘thick’ in the true sense anymore. Mishler and Pollack outline a thick culture by the following criteria:
Thick culture is essential; it is real and it matters
Thick culture is fundamental if not primordial
Thick culture is exogenous (passed on)
Thick culture is holistic
Thick culture is externally bounded and internally homogenous
Thick culture is a coherent cluster of orientations
Thick culture is durableIbid
They give extended definitions for each heading but just from the titles we get a sense of what is being communicated here. Others would disagree but I would offer that Anglicanism in the UK doesn’t, any longer, satisfy this criteria. This is thrown into sharper relief when we compare it with their description of thin culture as:
Thin culture is empirical
Thin culture is constructivist and rational
Thin culture is endogenous (self-defining)
Thin culture is individualist
Thin culture is relatively unbounded and diverse
Thin Culture is as a rule heterogeneous and ambivalent
Thin culture is dynamicIbid
Personally this sounds a lot like Evangelical culture, both the good and the bad. Particularly the fact that the term Evangelical itself is increasingly incoherent, antinomian and unbounded. I would say the same for Anglicanism in the UK and the lament by some of the High Church Anglo-Catholic party that the Church of England is becoming somehow more Evangelical is, aside from revealing their prejudices, actually confusing the symptom for the disease which is the ‘thinning’ of Anglicanism as both a culture and tradition.
This isn’t to say that’s all bad. I do think one of the reasons Evangelicals are particularly well suited to making converts amongst other religious communities, like Muslims (who are in comparison much ‘thicker’ as a culture), is precisely because of their unbounded and dynamic nature. They can operate in conditions others can’t, they can experiment more freely. Yet to build on this a Christian culture needs to thicken and mature over time if it wants longevity. A very mature organisation can incorporate elements of both, I believe, and we can see that within various reform movements in Church history. Yet we don’t need reform right now so much as a renaissance.
All of this is to say I think Ren is touching on something when he praises the value of owned space, which is the foundation upon which to build something with sustainable longevity. Christians in the UK are currently, in the words of Ren existing ‘almost entirely inside space that is owned by others’ and that means there is no durable foundation for them and their future if this doesn’t change. There are exceptions but if we are serious about being ‘evangelical’ and wanting to see more people know Christ the Church really needs to thicken up. Especially if, like me, we want to see our children and their children inherit the apostolic faith revealed in scripture.
I’ve asked some people who’d potentially know of this sort of thing going on in the UK if it did exist at all and, to be honest, I’ve heard nothing. It doesn’t mean it’s not out there but it is disheartening in one sense, but it’s also exciting. There is a big gap on the national stage for a thickening of christian culture to emerge on the scene, and as Ren points out, that starts with owning your own space and finding ways for an entire community to be putting down roots over the generations. That crucially needs to be focused at the level of the people, the laity.
What do you think? I’d recommend reading the links in this post for a fuller picture but do you agree? Am I totally wrong? Let me know.